New Essay by Tony Hoagland

An excerpt of an essay by faculty member Tony Hoagland appears online in The Kenyon Review:

An Excerpt from “Idiom, Our Funny Valentine: Its Cunning, Its Romance, Its Power”

I am driving around Houston, listening to a sermon by one of our many local radio evangelists. Call him Pastor James. Brother James is telling an anecdote about himself. The punch line goes something like this:

And in that moment, looking at that shiny outboard 44 horsepower engine, and my little nine-year old daughter, I felt Jesus look into my heart and I said, “I am so busted. . . . ”

Big tender oohs and ahhs from the congregation; well deserved, too, wrought by the skill of a language-man. In this case, it is the particular genius of idiom that evokes my admiration. I am so busted, says the preacher, and the commonality between leader and flock is instantly evoked, renewed, and reestablished; the playing field leveled, the airwaves bathed in human warmth and intimacy. Time to pass the collection plate.

Most idiom has the contradictory status of seeming, on the one hand, like exhausted speech,—i.e., it is used frequently and thoughtlessly, while at the same time it is very much alive with tribal flavor and the energy of the contemporary. Idiom shares categorical boundaries with vernacular, slang, colloquialism, and jargon. It pervades our speech, but what is it really, and how does it function—as it surely does—in the environment of a poem? The very fact that it is used in poems challenges the supposition that all poetic language must be fresh and particular. Nonetheless, much of idiom’s sizzle comes not from its brand-new freshness, but its ripe familiarity.

Continue reading the excerpt online at The Kenyon Review.

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